Thursday, 25 June 2009

Independent: 40 years this month – Modern gay liberation
25.6.9 by Joseph Carmel Chetcuti

You are having a quiet drink with friends in a bar when stocky policemen walk in and begin to harass you and your friends. You, your friends and the other patrons are timid and fearful of being arrested and you quickly disperse. Most patrons return home. A few are arrested and charged with a range of offences. Others gather at a safe distance outside only to return to the bar when the patrol car disappears in the distance. Such commotion and drama was an everyday occurrence in many gay bars across the world. The reaction of the patrons was predictable and the police knew it. After all, gay men (and lesbians) were powerless against the might of the law.

During the 1970s, I repeatedly watched police drop in at a gay bar (Capriccio’s) in Sydney’s Oxford Street. They would withdraw to a small room next to the bar only to re-emerge shortly thereafter, their pockets presumably heavier with more dollars. But in 1969, homosexuality was the furthest thing from my mind. That year, I was enjoying the blissful surroundings of Anglesey in North Wales as I was undergoing my novitiate with the Franciscan Minors Conventual.

June 1969. The 27th to be precise! Patrons are enjoying a quiet drink at the Stonewall Inn in Christopher Street, New York. The Stonewall Inn, more of a dump than a trendy public house, was without a liquor licence, not an uncommon occurrence those days for gay bars. There was also no running water in the bar and glasses were “sterilised” in dirty water. The Inn’s patrons were a mixed lot: blacks, street queens, hustlers, effeminate men, butch dykes, homeless kids, transvestites and “scare drag queens”. Many patrons were in their late teens (some underage). Those in their early 30s were considered “old”! Drugs were freely available at the Inn. It was a good place to buy acid. There were reports that the Mafia owned the Inn.

27 June had been a memorable day! Judy Garland’s funeral in Manhattan had stopped the nation. Some 22,000 people had filed past her coffin over a 24-hour period. Widely regarded as a gay icon throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Garland had gone over the rainbow for the last time. She was interred at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale New York. That day a tornado hit Kansas. Another tornado of a different sort was about to hit Christopher Street.

28 June. Panic strikes the Inn as white warning lights are hurriedly turned on to alert patrons of an impending police raid. To the management’s surprise, the police had failed to alert them of the raid. At around 1-2am, eight police officers from the First Division barged into the Stonewall Inn. A staged police raid should have been followed with a few patrons and employees being arrested. This time it was different. Patrons left the Inn but decided to gather outside. Onlookers joined in. Police emerged from the Inn with those they had arrested. A paddy wagon pulled up. The crowd booed and gave the police cheek. There were calls of “pigs” and “faggot cops!”

Others threw coins at them. A lesbian rocked the paddy wagon. A parking meter was uprooted. Someone screamed out “gay power!” And the fight was on. Bottles, bricks, dog muck were thrown at the police who were forced to retreat into the Inn. The Tactical Police Force turned up to rescue the police and disperse the crowd. The crowd dispersed but quickly reformed. The police withdrew at around 4am. Other riots took place on Sunday night and the following Wednesday.

The riots outside the Stonewall Inn are significant moments in gay and lesbian history. Gay men and lesbians gathered to protest against the Mafia and the police who for far too long had conspired against them and exploited them. But the riots mark also a significant shift away from the politics of respectability of both the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, the two major homosexual organisations at that time.

A new generation of gay men and lesbians had emerged. A generation that was more blatant and outrageous than their conservative predecessors all too preoccupied with respectability and normality. As one ditty put it, the “Stonewall girls”, as they styled themselves, wore their hair in curls. They wore no underwear and flashed their pubic hair. And they wore dungarees. They demanded equality. Finally, at long last, gay power had arrived in the United States. And it would soon spread worldwide! We owe a great debt to these very ordinary but at the same time quite extraordinary gay men, lesbians, transvestites and transsexuals. Happy birthday, modern gay liberation!

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